King Lear: An impressive production

King LearKing Lear has always been one of my favourite Shakespeare plays. For me, it’s where he reconciles the brutal nihilism of his earlier tragedies with the more meditative qualities of his later work. This National Theatre production, directed by Sam Mendes of American Beauty and Skyfall fame, is the first time I’ve seen a production solve the major issue of the play: it manages to make a clear distinction between the sisters Goneril and Regan. The two are often interchangeable, characterised by almost identical wickedness, but Kate Fleetwood as the steely, oppressive Goneril and the fantastic Anna Maxwell Martin as the almost femme-fatale Regan help to create two separate yet joint entities that provide a strong backbone for the production.

The core of any production of King Lear must, of course, be a competent Lear. Simon Russell Beale’s interpretation is by turns brutish and candid, his wide-eyed fury at Cordelia’s “nothing” prefigures the madness that comes later; in this light, the moment of table-flipping is not rendered as comically over-the-top as it might have been. Beale brings an intimate lucidity to Lear’s encroaching madness, leading to a heartbreaking delivery of “o let me not be mad.” Much of the tragedy in this production is drawn from that self-awareness; Lear’s powerlessness to prevent his madness is made all the more shattering.

The rest of the production is filled with delights as well. The often revolving stage adds a level of madness to the event reflecting the lack of clarity in Lear’s mind, the use of extended  thrusts creates an extension of the distance from reality that a lot of the characters seem to inhabit and choice moments like the eye-gouging of Gloucester are appropriately gruesome. The storm on the heath is made all the more spectacular by the addition of the rising stage as Lear and the Fool, isolated, rage against the elements.

Certain elements of the production don’t work. Cordelia seems to pitch her performance a little too high and an interesting interpretation of the Fool’s exit is shocking but undercut by comedic moments thereafter. Shocking and grisly moments at the play’s conclusion are similarly dampened by strangely comedic dabs, though I would hesitate to say whether this was merely the audience or the production’s intention. Despite small problems, the overall production creates a handsome, impressive Lear which fully understands the terror of empty space not just on stage but in Lear’s mind.